Unbundling: The CRTC’s expected ruling and industry impact

The appeal of unraveling the pay TV bundle for consumers is clear: you pay less for what you want, and you're done. For the industry, cable unbundling will not be that easy, or cheap, to offer.
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As rattled indie producers and broadcasters digest recent Let’s Talk TV decisions from the CRTC, the latest sacred cow to be placed on the chopping block is expected to be the traditional pay TV bundle.

After last week doing away with genre protection and daytime quotas, the regulator in its latest rulings due out tomorrow at 4 p.m., is expected to compel carriers to unbundle big cable packages and offer smaller basic service and pick-packs, alongside pre-assembled packages.

How might cable unbundling impact the TV industry and Canadian viewers it serves?

The implications of breaking up bundles and, as is anticipated, having carriers offer consumers a so-called “skinny basic” package they can top up with discretionary channels, threatens to leave already bewildered industry players feeling like the ground has shifted beneath them.

The CRTC is expected to stop short of introducing a pure a la carte model as it follows through on a directive from the ruling Conservatives in Ottawa to allow Canadians to avoid theme packs and other big cable bundles and pay only for TV channels they want.

The consumer appeal of cable unbundling is clear: you pay less for what you want, and you’re happy.

In reality, cable unbundling will not be that easy, or cheap, to introduce.

Carriers will still offer pre-assembled packages to Canadians satisfied with the status quo, and they will also allow subscribers to tailor their TV channel packages, while also purchasing some discretionary services on a standalone basis.

Industry players will also be watching to see whether the CRTC orders an all-Canadian, small basic package, or a larger basic package that includes 4+1, or the major U.S. networks, and is rate-capped.

In part, carriers have reluctantly come round to cable unbundling to slow cord cutting and cord shaving. But Canadians have also indicated they like combining cable packages and streaming services like Netflix, CraveTV and Shomi.

Introducing skinny basic will enable consumers to stay the course, while paying less for the TV channels they view.

At the same time, if the monthly bill for skinny basic rises over time while more channels are added, consumers could end up right back where they started cost-wise.

And TV viewers able to pay less for the four or five channels they actually watch has appeal. But what if your family has four or five individuals wanting their own four or five channels purchased on a pick-and-pay basis? Suddenly, that expensive monthly pay TV bundle may seem like a bargain.

For specialty channels unaligned to vertically integrated carriers, cable unbundling promises a watershed moment for the industry. If subscribers aren’t compelled to purchase a specialty, it could be left off smaller bundles.

And that could leave weaker Canadian channels that have long been paired with stronger Canadian and American channels to protect and promote them headed to the wall, or forced to live online or in VOD.

That, in tandem with the loss of genre protection, in turn could drastically reduce specialty channel revenue, as the number of Canadian channels and their audience reach and advertising revenue shrinks.

For cable and phone giants, the loss of broadcast revenue could be offset by increasing internet access revenue.

But for indie broadcasters and the series producers that depend on them for commissions, the tremors of recent Let’s Talk TV rulings could grow to an earthquake after the CRTC, as is expected, unveils cable unbundling this week.